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HOMETOWN, USASmall Press Review

Luminous Shadows

by Gayl Teller


Grounded in the daily life of Glens Falls, NY, where Michael Cleary was raised, Cleary’s poetic vision of his Hometown, USA is lyrical, unblinking, often mettlesome counterpoint to LOOK Magazine’s more traditionally conceived profile of Glens Falls as an American microcosm in its six-part series “Hometown, USA” in 1944.

With all the textural palpability of Gary Snyder, Cleary’s linguistic images as tangibly vivid, if not more so, than the reproduced photos from LOOK, Cleary carves such an authentic, deeply evocative world of Glens Falls out of the bark and rock, out of the waterfalls and ice, out of the fellow flesh of forest and work animals, and especially out of the human flesh with its passions and fumblings, culpabilities and tenderness, that his poetry resonates with the sparkle, spunk and tremblings of our hometowns; his family and his childhood have existential relevance for us all.

Ironically juxtaposing LOOK’s optimistic caption “people are sure of their faith in America’s future” beneath a photo of smiling Glens Falls faces are Cleary’s poignant and sensitive portrayals of his “Colossus Wobbling” father and uncle. He wryly and discerningly juxtaposes the Glens Falls that is “far from the bombs, fire and fury of battle…and safe from the ravages of war,” as described in LOOK, with a primal, intimate warrior inherent in human nature. Fathers and sons bond in bloody ritual “waiting for jackrabbits to be driven/under the nervous bats and clubs…/to know the unfamiliar power of pain and death./”

In “Rat Town,” “the glory of bright red wounds” fathers and sons share in killing rats is skillfully transformed into boys’ brusque discoveries of sexuality. “Halfway Brook” is a historical trace of wars reflected through that brook like a bloody eye. As “all over town/soldiers were coming home/to parades,” Cleary powerfully counterpoints brutality against glorified illusion. In incisively chilling questions, he asks, “Who can forget the hate that thrilled us?/Or fathom the joy of bloodthirsty love?/Who can suppose what dark delights/lie still in our ignorant hearts?”

Above all, Cleary’s poetry has “ungodly tenderness” that lets us hear “the holy silence of pain,” “courage and compassion/the only sacraments.” For his agnostic holiness is rendered from personal struggle and has greater authenticity than a rote catechism. With “dreams of hometown left behind,” he’s more than a nomad of modern mobility in Florida. For adulthood means leaving hometown, not just physically but spiritually; the independent mind must question what it loves and that is Cleary’s true commitment.

His poetry is a magic rope of homespun idiom lyrically twilled from his childhood to inventive form—from life lessons in a marble book to Socratic questioning—a rope tossed across the generations to his children and to his unborn grandchildren because “some things don’t get to be magic/’til after they’re good and gone.” And as the past resurrects itself as fairy tale in Cleary’s exploration, the mystical intertwining between past and present is deeply felt, for “this need to untangle change never changes” and “even the best of us have a bone to pick/with the ghost of days gone by” while “demons laugh outside the window/and darkness stalks the driven snow.”

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